With their long-awaited second album, Cardington getting rave reviews across the board, main songwriter John Young speaks to the DPRP's Patrick McAfee about how a midnight visit to the site of an infamous 1930s air disaster, led to the inspiration for the album's title track.
The much-travelled keyboardist also talks about the pub bet that led to the formation of Lifesigns, why he is so keen to get fans of classic 60s prog to try something new, and how he once made a young girl cry!
Interview by Patrick McAfee.
[DPRP] John, thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions. It is very much appreciated. I am a big fan of the first Lifesigns album and am very happy to say that Cardington is an excellent follow up! You have enjoyed a significant career in the rock and prog field, writing for and performing with artists such as Fish, Asia, John Wetton, Jon Anderson, The Scorpions and others, as well as your own solo work. With the success that you were having working with other artists, as well as with the John Young Band, what led to the formation of Lifesigns at this stage of your career?
[John Young] Cheers Patrick! Well, Lifesigns was originally formed from a bet in a pub around 10 years ago. I was chatting with some folks and I said I felt that the prog scene was a bit one dimensional. To me there were a lot of very similar bands, which quite often reminded me of the easier side of Pink Floyd. I felt that nothing was moving forwards and there was so much scope to do that. One of the guys in the pub said: "Well if you think you can do any better!" and Lifesigns was born. I'm happy to say that now, 10 years later, there are lots of great new prog bands around and the genre seems to be growing steadily.
The first Lifesigns album was one of the best of 2013 and Cardington is much anticipated. One key change since the debut was the departure of bassist Nick Beggs due to other commitments. That spot was very adequately filled a few years ago by the multi-talented John Poole. What has the last few years of touring, writing and performing together, meant to the evolution of the band?
I think with all prog acts we follow a similar pattern. I said to someone on Cruise To The Edge (CTTE), that apart from the big guys such as Yes or Steve Hackett, you will probably find a large number of the bands on board have other day jobs. (Either outside of music or with a more established artist or indeed another area of music). As such, the "food-chain" of music generally works from the top down. It's a little like the Premier League transfer deadline, so you do tend to see a lot of musicians swapping jobs these days.
Nick was busy with Steve Hackett and Steven Wilson, so we auditioned, and Jon and Niko just nailed it. That said, we fully realise that there is an ebb and flow, and people sometimes have to leave to do other work, or work has to be structured around other artists. For example, one of my day jobs is Bonnie Tyler, Jon plays with Dr Hook, Dave Bainbridge plays with the Strawbs and Frosty plays in Mamma Mia. So working out time for Lifesigns can be a little difficult. That said, last year we toured well, and the shows went from pubs to playing at the Lorelei, Ramblin' Man and Cropredy festivals, so we must be doing something right.
The Lifesigns debut was very well received by the prog community. For a debut album, was the level of response it received surprising to you in any way and did it create any pressure as to what the follow up would be?
We were thrilled with the response to the first CD but we are old pros I guess, so we just knew that if we make another one, it will take time and it will be ready when it's ready. We (Me, Steve, Frosty and Jon) are all perfectionists, so a new album is not going to be released until we feel it's right. It's the way we worked with the first CD too, so why break a winning formula!
Much like the band's debut, Cardington is a prog album that mixes great melodies and memorable choruses, with more adventurous instrumentation. Can you provide any details on the writing process for Lifesigns and how the songs evolved?
I guess I've really written all the material to date, and I do that via something called "channelling", which basically involves detaching the mind and just letting your fingers do their thing. It's very odd, but I've been doing it for some years now, so I'm not going to argue with it. It's a bit like a form of meditation and it can really surprise you both musically and lyrically.
The excellent title track of the album is focused on the R101 Airship disaster in 1930, and the Cardington sheds that still stand as monuments. Not being from the UK, I wasn't previously aware of this occurrence and hearing the song led me to research the situation, which was emotional. What inspired you to focus on Cardington and this story as the centrepiece of the album?
I've always loved aviation and I think I was probably looking for something that would indeed be the centrepiece of the CD. I drove back from the East Coast one night, and around midnight I found myself near Cardington, so I though I would take a look at the "Sheds". I drove up behind them. It was a beautiful, moonlit night and I was awestruck by the spirit and the beauty of these monoliths. I could also feel how the area is associated with this place. Those who lost their lives are buried in the little church at Cardington. It was an inspirational evening. I too then started researching, firstly the success of the R100 and then the pressure put on the R101 to be bigger and better than the German airships of the time. This was very much seen as the future. They built identical sheds in Egypt and India. This was no small feat, they had customs houses. They were gearing up to be the future of aviation and were seen as a much more luxurious option than the aeroplane.
Lord Thomson (minister of aviation) just pushed it too far and the R101 wasn't ready, but he had a deadline. The designers knew it was overweight, under-powered and under tested. Thomson wanted it airborne. He had deadlines to meet. He climbed aboard the maiden voyage and died in the accident. A little known fact is that two days later a medium in London was contacted by the pilot of the R101 and he was given so much technical and top secret information as to the reason for the crash, that it was difficult to disprove. Fascinating stuff.
The last few years have seen the band playing live shows and festivals. What are your feelings on the current state of prog, and are there other current bands or artists that you are especially impressed by?
I think Prog is in a very good state at the moment. That said, it's almost waiting for the audience to catch up. The main difficulty is outside of a few publications, it is hidden. Mainstream radio and press are unlikely to touch it, yet millions of people would probably love it, if they only knew it existed. I feel any changes that bring it to the forefront, may even take a more obscure route. Maybe somebody famous declaring a love for it, or a film using a prog score, or new markets opening up in say India or China.
I really enjoy the work of artists like Lazuli, Frost, Jump and Tiger Moth Tales. I think I'm quite eclectic in some respects, as I think prog and jazz-rock also filter over into other bands on the pop side, such as Knower and Snarky Puppy. That said, I usually rely on other people to find me new music. One of the real challenges now, is to get those who only love prog and rock from the 70s and 80s to step away and listen to new bands. That can be so very hard. We played a gig last year where a dyed-in-the-wool YES fan came up to me and said: "I've seen YES 20 times, but that was the best gig I've ever seen". He was followed by a young girl who came and asked for a hug. When I asked why, she said: 'You made me cry'. How dare anyone say we are not commercial!!
From your perspective, what are the most exciting aspects of this new album for you and what are the band's plans to promote it? Is there opportunity for shows in other countries, such as the USA or Canada?
Well I think it really depends on what the public makes of it. We are prog with a pop element, and we also enjoy both major and minor keys. We are full of hooks, and that can work on anyone. As for travelling, we are doing CTTE again next year and we've already been approached to do a few festivals ... so the door is open.
John, thanks for taking the time to answer these questions. Cardington was well worth the wait, and like the first Lifesigns release, it is one of the best albums of the year!
Thanks Patrick! Much appreciated.